Laurie Burns McRobbie

Remarks for the Women’s Leadership Summit at the IU Kelley School of Business

Introduction and Welcome

Thank you, Holli and Meg, it’s great to be here with you today, on such an exciting occasion for women of Kelley and for the entire Kelley community.

I want to congratulate you and Holli and Meg for your leadership in organizing this event. You set out to create a collaborative space, where IU women can connect, learn, support each other, and walk away with some action steps to ensure our career paths as women are a little clearer.

We are in a particularly critical time when we need new voices and energized leadership – it’s perhaps never been more important than it is today. So Holli and Meg, thank you for contributing so well to this, and I’m confident the Women’s Leadership Summit at Kelley will continue to be an annual event that helps many IU students on their path to success.

I also want to thank the corporate sponsors for your support of this conference and for your partnership with Kelley and IU.

And I want to recognize the male students in the audience, ¼ of those in attendance today. I commend you for coming, for your own learning, in support of your female peers, and for embracing the concept of being male allies, or “manbassadors”, which you learned about earlier today. Effective leadership comes in many forms, and the more voices around the table the stronger our organizations are. It takes all of us to ensure that all these diverse voices are heard.

Today’s Topics, Tomorrow’s Impact

You’ve received some great advice and counsel today from professionals—many Kelley alumnae—who are living and dealing with the real-world issues that will face you, our next generation of business and civic leaders.

Like how to own your value in the workplace.

How to negotiate your worth as an employee. How to manage organizational barriers and breakdowns.

How to make tough decisions that impact lives outside of the office.

How to shift gears when you might feel like you’ve hit a dead end professionally.

You’ve discovered ways to promote collaboration and lift up others in an organization.

You’ve gained an understanding of leadership differences and hopefully considered your individual values and how you can lead with authenticity.

And I know you’ve all learned not only from our generous speakers today, but from each other. I’m confident that everyone will leave with new networks and circles of support. Make sure you keep them, and nurture them – they will be invaluable to you as you progress in your careers.

The female student body at Kelley—and IU at large—is exceptionally strong. We’re seeing more women interested and engaged in business and STEM disciplines, and many new women’s groups forming across IU Bloomington and on other campuses to address various aspects of diversity and gender equity.

At Kelley in particular, 7 of 8 co-ed business fraternities have female presidents this academic year. This is wonderful to see, particularly for the array of leadership opportunities that exist for women, and for everyone. Leadership itself is, in my view, a crucial component of an IU education, and we want to ensure that all students graduate with the capacity for leadership, even if that’s down the road a few years.

Despite all this good news, though, we know the work isn’t done, and maybe next year will look different in terms of what’s happening and who’s in a leadership role. We have to be intentional in how we ensure that these gains aren’t lost. In my remarks this afternoon, I want to touch on three themes that have to do with being intentional, and ones that I think have been present all afternoon and also illustrate some of my own experiences.

Connectedness

The first theme has to do with connectedness, and empathy.  We are living in a highly connected time, looking around at all the devices we have at our disposal.  We can talk to anyone anywhere, and at any time—I’m guessing some of you are sneaking a text or a tweet right now!

We’re reaping both the benefits and the downsides of this hyper-connectedness as well. 

As much as our digital devices in classrooms, our homes, in our hands, on our wrists, keep us up to date on the latest news, events, and activities of friends and family, these microworlds that we live in digitally can also divide us from each other. 

We can travel in our own digital bubbles and our own “tribes” of likeminded others much more easily, and thus lose the benefits of being in an environment like the one we have at IU that is so rich in diversity, of all kinds. 

It takes conscious effort to reach out and interact with someone whose life experience or background is wholly different than yours, simply to understand better who that person is and what they see going on.  It takes empathy. 

And as I’ve already noted, it’s never been more important than it is now to find those wellsprings of empathy and that conscious intention to bridge differences, and find what we have in common.

This is important not only for the kind of world we need to foster for others, but for our individual personal and professional lives. 

Networks are crucial to navigating your college careers and the work that lies ahead of you.  Most of you, I’m guessing, are still sorting through your ideas and passions for what you’ll do when you leave IU, and odds are that even if you know what you want to pursue for the next decade or so, you may find yourself at a crossroads later on, unsure that what you’ve been doing is what you want to keep doing. 

Those networks of people, genuine connections that you make here and that you will make in the future with people from all kinds of backgrounds, can help you not only see other potential paths to take, but can help you with those critical first steps. 

And those networks and connections matter for those coming along behind you as well, particularly in sectors of the economy where women remain in the minority, and women of color even more so. 

My own professional background is in one of these sectors – computing and IT. 

Let me tell you a little more about my story and what I’ve found myself reflecting on after 40 or so years of my professional life.

I was in college in the 1970s during another time of great change, particularly for women.  As a student, I was caught up in all kinds of activities around equity in the workplace as well as in academia. 

I focused on women’s history and learned about all the work that had gone on to get us to a point where women were entering the workforce and the professions in unprecedented numbers, and were creating new models for combining families and careers. 

But I also remember hearing from several of my professors who had been part of previous waves of change for women,

when the only careers open were in teaching, nursing, or secretarial work,

when women couldn’t borrow money in their own names,

or get the support they needed for their children while they pursued work or education,

that they worried that my generation would rest on THEIR laurels and become complacent about the need for continued hard work that would ensure that their gains, particularly for women’s economic and financial lives, weren’t lost. 

I remember acknowledging this but also just getting back to what I was doing and what lay ahead.  After all, so much had already changed for the positive, everything was open to me, and it seemed that I could do, and be, anything I wanted. 

And that turned out to be a career in IT, which I began in about 1980, not long after I graduated.  

I had not contemplated a career in technology in the slightest—I was a history major—but I discovered there was a lot that a liberal arts person could bring to the table.

And my timing, as it turned out, was good―the first PC had just come out and the TCP/IP protocols had just been standardized.

So I got caught up in this huge wave of innovation as the Internet came into being, and despite having never written a single line of code, I was hooked.

I started in computer networking, helping researchers and scientists take advantage of this newly developing internet, and then went to the central IT organization at the University of Michigan where I rose through the management ranks to lead the user services division.   

In late 1999, I went to Internet2, a national consortium of research universities, government labs, and industry focused on next generation Internet technologies, where I eventually became a vice president.  Back to networking!

I was fortunate and I loved it, and felt that I was succeeding at something important, something that was changing the world.

But as time went on, the advice of my professors, about not taking previous gains for granted, started to come home to me.

15 years into my career, there were still very few women in programming or engineering positions, and fewer still in management ranks, particularly at the top. 

In fact, things have actually gotten worse for women in tech―25 years after I got my start, the number of women earning degrees in computer science had fallen dramatically. 

In 1984, about the time I started out, over a third of CS degrees in the U.S. went to women.  In 2007, it was about 12%. 

The numbers are inching back up, but we’re still not back to where we were a generation ago. 

And I realized that,  although there are lots of reasons for the falloff, part of it was that I and others in my generation hadn’t been intentional enough about reaching back to mentor younger women, or even to notice that fewer women were coming in. 

We hadn’t done enough to create connections, to see where organizational cultures were developing that excluded women and individuals of color. 

It takes continual attention and awareness of how things might be changing – it’s not enough to blaze a trail, you have to keep it clear and check to see that others are able to follow it.

Staying connected to people, to those who are your peers and those who will come after you, ensures your gains won’t be lost.  

Weaving a Leadership Identity around Learning

The second theme I want to touch on is about how we develop our leadership identities, and how we continue to learn about our own strengths and opportunities.

As I was thinking about my remarks for today, I reflected back to when I first thought of myself as a leader, as well as how my leadership identity has evolved and how it’s current shaped by my role as First Lady. 

I had a few leadership experiences as a college student, but my real leadership awakening came in the workplace, when I was in my second job and the opportunity arose to join the campus’s Commission for Women. I became its chair shortly thereafter, and discovered that being out in front was much more part of my identity than I’d realized. 

I remember being both excited and terrified―I really wanted to help change things and here was my chance, but I didn’t know how. I had to just start, and it was very much like stepping off the edge of a cliff, not at all sure if I knew how to open the parachute. 

This experience of feeling clueless but also eager and excited followed me into my first management job, and even into later ones. 

What I discovered is that people really are there to help you, and as long as you’re honest and own your mistakes, they will forgive you and give you another chance.  Of course, you need to ask for their help, and take their advice, and  I would not be telling a completely accurate story if I left out the times when I ignored advice, or simply didn’t ask for it because I was embarrassed at not knowing how to do something. 

I also left a lot of opportunity on the ground because I didn’t seek a mentor at the right moments, or because I saw asking for advice as a sign that I was lacking in some essential skill―all those other people had seen through me, and I wasn’t really as good as I pretended to be. 

These are common experiences, I think especially for women―we know them as “the imposter syndrome” and other ways that stereotypes trip us up.  For what it’s worth, even the most seemingly accomplished leaders struggle with this. 

Finding Opportunities to Lead

Of course today, a large piece of my leadership identity stems from my role as IU’s First Lady.

Being first lady is a unique position, to say the least, especially for a feminist with a successful career, and who has been interested in women’s equality and leadership all her life.

Needless to say, this wasn’t part of my career plan―I didn’t exactly apply to be First Lady―and it was a jolt to adjust to not being fully in charge of own independent life.   

But I discovered quickly that while the role can be constraining, it is simultaneously liberating, in part because it isn’t well defined—is it a title or a job?  

I discovered early on that this ambiguity was a major advantage―I get to define my own agenda and pursue the things I truly care about.

And along with this freedom of choice, I gained something of a “bully pulpit” as First Lady. 

I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity!  So the lesson here is that you don’t always get to choose your opportunities―sometimes they find you, and the question is just whether you recognize them, and capitalize on them.  

Finding Your Voice

The third theme I want to touch on is the importance of finding your voice.  By this I don’t mean just using it all the time  (I personally don’t recommend getting up every morning and tweeting whatever might come into your head, for instance), but finding a verbal way to express your leadership identity and authenticity, and empower others to accomplish even more than they, or you, thought possible.   

The linguistics scholar Deborah Tannen has written extensively about gender and language, and how women’s linguistic patterns can put them at a disadvantage in workplaces that are “culturally male”, which describes a number of sectors in the economy, certainly the tech sector. 

There is a lot in what Tannen has studied that goes to the issue of unconscious bias, the internal judgments we make about others that are based on learned stereotypes and that we are not even aware of relying on. 

Tannen talks about our tendency to associate male linguistic styles of speech—directive, bottom-line oriented, without qualifiers—as indications of leadership and competence, and women’s styles—collaborative, asking questions rather than directing, empathetic—as indications of weakness and lack of knowledge. 

We need to raise our own awareness of when we might be tuning out certain voices because we believe they don’t sound authoritative. We have to think more deeply about what leaders not only look like, but sound like.

But women can also be too open about being unsure, using “sorry” a lot, qualifying our statements before we say them, and other phrases that undermine our strength and credibility. 

So the other side of this is being conscious of how you express yourself in meetings and in groups, and reinforce those expressions that do you justice, and eliminate those that make it easier for someone else, who is sometimes another woman, to see you as less than credible. 

But finding your voice is also about values, about knowing what you stand for and what brings meaning and purpose to your life and your chosen career path. 

I want to tell you about another area I’m involved with that is helping me and my colleagues articulate a set of values and find ways to effectively represent those values. 

I mentioned the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council, which exists to engage our extensive community of alumnae all over the world in helping to build an even better and stronger Indiana University for generations of students to come. I know a number of you are seniors and therefore about to become a member of this vibrant community of alumnae!

Over the last seven years of the Council’s existence, we have seen how passionately IU women dive into learning about the academic and service work going on at IU, and how committed they are to supporting and improving what goes on here. 

Out of this we’ve developed a way to create an identity for our alumnae, and what it means to be a woman of IU. 

We are talking about the woman of IU as someone who is

  • Fostering health and well-being through her commitment to medical research and practice, public health, nursing, dentistry and other allied health sciences;
  • Shaping the arts and sciences through her involvement with the liberal arts, the humanities, and art and design;
  • Leading by giving of her time, talent and treasure, and committed to learning about the art and science of philanthropy; and
  • Changing the world, through her business expertise, her interest in entrepreneurship, her interest in global issues, and the perspectives from other cultures;

But even most importantly, especially now in this time of upheaval and challenge, the woman of IU has a voice, and she uses that voice to stand up for the values of inclusion, tolerance, civility, and openness to the world.

Indiana University, like all great institutions of higher education, is dedicated to this openness, to discovery, to the pursuit and diseemination of knowledge, and to the prosperity of our state, our nation, and our world. The woman of IU is a voice for these values. 

Call to Action

As you go away from here today, I know you’re taking many insights and lessons with you, and I hope I’ve added to those:

To jump into new things even if you don’t know how to start―you will figure it out. 

To admit when you need to learn something new, even when you’re supposed to be the expert and leader.

To make and keep connections and networks of friends and colleagues, starting with the ones you’re cultivating here―and to use them even when it feels embarrassing to ask how to do something you think you should know. 

To find the opportunities in ambiguity, whether it’s in a job description, role in a group, or a time of transition in your work or personal life. 

But perhaps my most important message is to find your voice in your values, in the values of Indiana University, and be a voice for others

We understandably want the world to work for us, who have been so well prepared by our IU educations, but we also have to make it work for others who need our knowledge and skills.

We all need to be among those creating a world that is healthy, safe, inclusive and open.

It’s never only about us. 

So get engaged in something bigger than yourself. 

Use your voice to help ensure that everyone, everywhere, can achieve their dreams.

And welcome to your future as a woman of Indiana University.

Thank you.